High Impact, Largely Optional

Association of American Colleges & Universities analyzes extent to which colleges are embracing policies and programs associated with student learning and completion.

November 16, 2015

The Association of American Colleges & Universities has over the years embraced numerous practices as key to promoting student learning, student engagement and student completion. The practices and their goals are all linked since students who are more engaged tend to learn more and are more likely to graduate.

A study being released today shows widespread adoption of at least some of these practices, but much more scattered adoption of others.

The data come from 325 chief academic officers of institutions that are members of AAC&U and who responded to a survey of all 1,001 member institutions.

High-Impact Educational Practices

Practice Required Optional
First-year experiences that support the transition to college 60% 31%
First-year academic seminars 52% 30%
Global or world culture studies 52% 41%
Diversity studies and experiences 34% 53%
Service learning 14% 79%
Learning communities 12% 59%
Undergraduate research 9% 87%
Practicums and supervised fieldwork 7% 90%
Internships 6% 92%
Study abroad 2% 94%

In another major finding, the survey found that 100 percent of colleges are tracking graduation rates and retention rates of all students, and 80 percent are disaggregating the data by raced and ethnicity. Smaller proportions are disaggregating by socioeconomic status (around 40 percent) or parents' level of educational attainment (29 percent).

Likewise, a high percentage (78 percent) of colleges are tracking participation of all students in high-impact learning experiences. But much smaller percentages are tracking participation by racial/ethnic group (30 percent), socioeconomic status (16 percent) or parents' educational attainment (12 percent). This means that despite apparent agreement that these practices matter, most colleges aren't looking at whether all students or just some types of students are participating. And this become all the more important given that most colleges only offer and do not require such experiences for students.

Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at AAC&U, said in an interview that the data point to "a mismatch" between the commitments that colleges make to improve the graduation rates of minority and low-income students, and their tracking the educational experiences of those students. Institutions that are committed "to closing the equity gap" need to track these things, she said.

With regard to the high-impact practices that colleges adopt for all students vs. making optional, Humphreys noted that the greatest adoption appears to be for practices that relate to the transition from high school to college. "There seems to be a sense of, 'we're going to try a lot of stuff and hope it works, but mostly focused on transition to college,'" she said.

Humphreys said that she didn't think many colleges were against adopting more high-impact practices, or tracking them by a range of socioeconomic characteristics. "It's literally bandwidth" at many institutions, she said. "There is so much you can take on." At the same time, she said she hoped the study would encourage more colleges to adopt policies so that more students engage in high-impact practices, and that colleges more fully track participation in them.


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